Words by Megan Cahn
A water closet in a strip club in the bowels of Times Square. Picture that. A place none of us would want to visit, let alone work a 16-hour double. But that’s the fate of director/writer and star, George Griffith’s protagonist in “From the Head”, which debuted at the SOHO Film Festival last week. The setting paints a dismal picture, and yet the film is far from it — the confined locale providing Griffith with a hilariously touching and tragically gripping narrative that will make you forget you’re spending 100 minutes focused on three urinals and their unruly visitors.
In part we can credit the host with the film’s success: bathroom attendant “Shoes,” named for the patent leather black and white oxfords that add a bit of quirk to his stuffy tuxedo uniform, and based on Griffith’s own New York experience as the man behind the Men’s sign. The year is 1995, and Shoes has worked the strip joint, turning the faucet off and on, handing over towels and luring as much cash as possible from customers’ wallets and into his tip bowl, for three years now. It’s an anniversary he has no desire to celebrate, but one the regulars (how many of them there are…) and his stripper colleagues can’t seem to drop. Everyone wants to know why he’s stayed so long — his obvious intelligence and striking presence could have taken him far beyond the doors of any bathroom.
But Shoes is a fixture, a man that everyone from the overly-tanned topless dancers to their drooling suitors get more from than just candy and cologne. Over sixty characters pass through his porcelain domain during the course of the film. Each with his or her (the ladies bathroom gets clogged for a short time, forcing the strippers to use the Men’s and shaking the plot line up a bit) own issues and demands. Shoes meets them all with a perfect mix of stoicism and charisma, knowing just what to say, or not to say, to anyone in any situation. From a Mafioso wanting to know if he will really get his money’s worth in the “champagne room” to an impeccably dressed businessman loner with an affinity for lollipops and a need for conversation — Shoes offers an escape from their own night of escape, and they offer up their cash one by one.
He might tell a joke (“What do Brooklyn and pantyhose have in common?” “Flatbush.”), or give a helpful stay-out-of-the-dog-house favor (“Do you want me to get the lipstick off the back of your collar so your wife doesn’t see?”) or simply offer a quiet ear to vent to about the pretty dancer who is “so down to earth and different than the rest.” And yet while Shoes is the audience’s definitive anchor, the plethora of unlikely visitors only add to the film’s surprisingly quick pace, authenticity and hilarity. They just keep coming, some of them whether their bladders are full or not. And so the night, and the film, progress, the bathroom getting dirtier and its occupants getting drunker, spiraling to a dark ending at the light of day.
But in the end, the question still remains: Why has Shoes been there for three years? The pain of it shows in his ever-increasingly furrowed brow and sad eyes. There are hints at why he’s stayed, including a visit from a troubled family member, as there are hints at plans to leave, possibly to L.A. But where else could he have such a throne? Will Shoes return to his post between the sink and the garbage bin? For his sake we hope for escape, but I certainly wouldn’t mind watching him in action for another topsy-turvy night in “From the Head: The Sequel”